The trolley problem and the complexities of history

This was originally a response to a discussion concerning the so-called trolley problem – a supposed ethical dilemma involving a choice to allow a trolley to speed toward five innocent people; or hit a switch that may re-direct it toward another innocent person on another track; or simply throw a person in front of the train in order to save the lives of the other five. Basically, a choice between de-ontological or utilitarian ethics. I can’t remember whether it was devised by psychologists but is used by some philosophers as a thought experiment, or the other way around. It is, from my perspective, utterly useless.

Ethics can get very complicated. Or actually, it always is complicated, but when we make our actual decisions, we do so by focusing on specific details in the context in which the decisions are made.

Do we begin an understanding of ethics in Germany, by studying the behavior of the Germans and the Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s? Of course, but how could it be otherwise? And in such study our purpose is not to justify that behavior, but to understand it, and to derive principles, both positive and negative, according to which we have greater purchase over our own behavior in the future.

Having written a study on Hitler, I had to confront a wide range of behaviors in Germany in that era. In that confrontation, I had to ask some painful questions. What made highly intelligent and otherwise ethical doctors engage in crude and cruel ‘experiments’? Why did supposedly decent truck drivers willingly deliver Zylon B to the death camps, knowing what they were intended for? If one asked a young soldier whether it was right to beat an infant to death, he would not only have rejected that suggestion, he would have been appalled. Yet the next day he would then beat an infant to death, persuaded that the infant’s Jewish descent, or the presumed wisdom of the officer ordering him to do this, effectively excused him from responsibility.

After ordering the police to form what were death squads, to ‘clean up’ Jewish villages in Poland in the wake of the invasion, Himmler decided it was his duty to witness one of these mass executions. He came, he saw, he promptly threw up, disgusted with horror. Then he just as promptly reassured the men involved that they were engaging in terrible acts for the greater glory of Germany, and they would be well remembered for their ‘moral’ sacrifice. (By the way, the notion that these special police had to follow orders in performing mass murders happens to be a lie. If any of them felt they could not in good conscience participate, they were re-assigned to desk jobs back in Germany. Partly for this reason they were replaced by the more dedicated SS.)

It is little known, but the Supreme Court of Germany, at least up to the time of my study, had not ruled Hitler’s dictatorship or the laws made by him as illegitimate, but that they were completely constitutional for their time, but only superseded by the post-war constitution? That should give us pause.

Other odd facts raising troubling questions: Himmler was a school teacher who believed stars were ice crystals. But the Nazis condemned contemporary physics as “Jewish science;’ except of course when it could be used to build weapons. Goebbels had a doctorate in engineering – along with some 40,000 Nazis holding graduate degrees in various fields, including half the medical doctors in Germany.

A right-wing influence on the young in the ’20s and ’30s was a major folk music revival. One of the most popular poets in this era was Walt Whitman in translation. Germany was peppered with pagan-revival religious cults, a movement dating back a century previous. The concentration camps were modeled in part on relocation camps for American Indians in the previous century.

Although homosexuals were oppressed and sent to camps in the later ’30s, the leadership of the Nazi SA (Brownshirts) were notorious for their homosexual orgies (which led the General Chiefs of Staff to demand their execution, carried out in the Night of the Long Knives).

The Marxists in the Reichstag voted for Hitler’s chancellorship, thinking that would position them to better negotiate with the Nazis.

Sociological analysis indicates that a third of Germany’s population actively supported Hitler, another third decided to go along with him, because what the heck, what did they have to lose? The final third were opposed to Hitler, but after all, they were Germans, and respected his legitimate election. Given the brutal totalitarianism of the Nazis, by the time they thought to resist, they were stuck.

Hitler himself was a vegetarian, something of an ascetic who only indulged by pouring sugar in his wine; he ended up addicted to pain pills. He banned modern artists, but in his youth had hoped to become one. He was fond of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Once the war started he found himself losing interest in Wagner’s operas. He told his architect Spear that he wanted buildings that would make ‘beautiful ruins.’ He refused to marry his lover Eva Braun until the moment he determined that they both needed to die. In the bunker he admitted bitterly that Schopenhauer had been right that the way of ‘Will’ was an exercise in futility, and that the Germans had proven the weaker race after all.

Historical facts like these present a wide array of ethical and political problems that aren’t going to be solved by simplistic reduction to binary choices, readily determined by psychologists or moral absolutists.

What next, the ‘five-year old Hitler dilemma’? – ‘if you could go back in time and shoot Hitler at age five, would you do so?’ Yes; double tap – and always put one in the brain.

Who are those five people the trolley is racing towards? Answer that question and the problem might be easier to solve.